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My 2023 Best Books List
I Ain't Ashamed of List Making
A kind of switch flipped for me in recent years. I have always loved reading, but reading became work for me for a while, namely because it was part of my work as a writer. The books sent from other authors piled up, the digital manuscripts for endorsement or review built up, and there was a constant feeling of needing to always be reading the latest in Christian non-fiction for work.
While in grad school, though, there was no option. The books must be read and distilled and commented upon. And in the process, I rediscovered reading for pleasure. I read books about fungi and politics, history and fiction, poetry and doctrine, spiritual formation and trees, soil and wolves, and I still couldn’t get enough.1
It is November and my goal to read 50 books in 2023 was met in April, by late summer I’d surpassed 100, and it is looking like I’ll hit 150 by the end of the year. I’ve read all of these books for myself primarily, but some of you have been curious about the ones I’ve liked the most. I’ve compiled them below for you in three different categories.
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Braiding Sweetgrass: Robin Wall Kimmerer hails from my stomping grounds, where the woods she loves best and has studied most are the woods I also love best and study most, so this is a no-brainer for me. I loved this book.
The Art of Memoir: I cannot believe I haven’t read Mary Karr’s book on writing memoir until this year, but what can I say? I loved it and I needed it this year. It helped me when I was stumbling along aimless while writing The Understory. Plus, it’s worth it for the list of memoirs she shares at the back.
Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: We read this by Reggie Williams for school this year and it ended up being my favorite book of our whole semester. I have never known this side of Bonhoeffer and it helped me to see him a bit more fully and appreciate his work more.
Finding The Mother Tree: My favorite character in Richard Powers’ The Overstory is based on Suzanne Simard, author of this book and the scientist who discovered the essential mycorrhizal connections between trees. I loved this book, every word.
The Hidden Forest: I told my friend Philip when I read this book by Jon Luoma, “It’s like a thriller, but for the forest.” Philip is probably the only person I know who understood exactly what I meant and loved the book as much as I did. But yes, this was a favorite this year.
Drinking: This book by Caroline Knapp was one of Mary Karr’s recommended memoirs and for good reason. I’ve never liked alcohol much so I didn’t relate to that element of this memoir, but I am a human and understand addiction to things that aren’t good for me. This was, for me, unforgettable.
The Irrational Season: It certainly wasn’t my first time through this Madeleine L’Engle classic, but for some reason (perhaps because I am the same age she was when she wrote it?), it resonated in a new way. I felt I knew her in a way I haven’t before. This book felt like a permission slip to me this year.
Stranger Care: Oooof, this is a lot. Don’t read this one unless you’re in a headspace for complex feelings and unresolved emotions. This one by Sarah Sentilles on foster care, the foster care system, the communities around us, and letting go is a heartbreaker.
You Could Make This Place Beautiful: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve seen’s memoir everywhere this year. I read it in one sitting, it was that propulsive. It’s the story of her marriage and her divorce, but also the story of so much more.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Another one not for the faint of heart. This one by Maggie O’Farrel chronicles her lifetime of near death experiences. It was such an interesting choice of structure and it made me think about all the times in my own life I’ve brushed with death.
How to Stay Married: Another one I read in one sitting (just this past weekend). Friends had been telling me to pick up Harrison Scott Key’s newest for months now and now was the time. I’ve read Key’s other books, but this one is better than them all and will go down in my memory for years.
Wild: I don’t know how I’ve never read Cheryl Strayed’s fabulous memoir before (I was probably living under a rock). I’ve seen the movie several times but the memoir was better in almost every way. This wasn’t just the year of the read for me, it was also the year of Dreaming About A Grand Adventure and Wild hit the spot for me.
In the Shelter: Perhaps you’re familiar with Padraig O’Tuama’s work from OnBeing. This is where I’ve mostly known of him, but this small book of notes and notations was an early favorite of mine this year.
The Deep Down Things: It’s no secret that I’m a fan ofand , and this book didn’t disappoint me. It’s honest, redemptive, and beautifully written in the way only the Haines can do.
Priestdaddy: One of my favorite books from last year was Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, and so I knew I wanted to put her memoir on my list this year. No regrets. Not one. Heartbreaking and hilarious.
Demon Copperhead: If you read nothing else on this list, I hope you read this one. I have always been a fan of Barbara Kingsolver and own almost all of her books, but I can confidently say this one is a masterpiece. I will never forget it.
My Name is Asher Lev: Every few years I lose my nerve as a writer and every few years I find myself gravitating back to Chaim Potok’s unforgettable character, Asher Lev, the painter. I needed this book when I read it in January and I know I will need it again soon.
Once There Were Wolves: I wrote about this one by Charlotte McConaghy a few months ago but it’s in my top list for sure. I loved the expanse of this novel, the mystery, the trauma, the family, the science, the ecology, the love. I will read this one again and again, I know.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: Apart from The Oregon Trail, my fingers have never touched a video game in my life. But it turns out The Oregon Trail is a good a place as any to have some context for this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful book by Gabrielle Zevin.
The Wishing Game: I’m not sure if this one belongs on the Best of 2023 list for me but I really loved the playfulness of this book and its brilliant plot. I read about 60 fiction books this year and sometimes the plots can run into one another, but this one by Meg Shaffer was fresh and delightful.
Migrations: As soon as I finished Charlotte McConaghy’s other book, I ordered this one. While I didn’t love it as much as Once There Were Wolves, it still had all the same elements I loved, mystery, ecology, a propulsive story, and beautifully developed characters.
2023 was a good reading year for me and I’m already piling up the books on my desk for 2024. I’m curious, what did you read and love this year that I should add to my list? Speaking of which, I asked on Threads and Notes the other day, “If you were teaching a class on something you take great delight in, what five books would be on your syllabus,” and the answers were great! If you didn’t yet answer, I’d love to hear about your five books in a comment below.
Have you preordered my latest book? The Understory: An Invitation to Rootedness and Resilience from the Forest Floor?
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It’s taken me a long time (nearly a decade!) to stop feeling guilty about our childlessness and the time it allows me, and to instead fill that time I used to fill with guilt with books. I love reading and I have time for it! What goodness.